/ 10 October 2019

The idealism of #ImStaying has its limits

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)




Disappointment and dissatisfaction seem to define post-apartheid South Africa. These attitudes manifest in different ways. For the millions of people disappointed by their destitution, and locked out of political power by their poverty, volatile rage is an avenue of expression, as seen in the recent xenophobic violence.

As for those people dissatisfied but shielded by their wealth and the comfort it provides, a paralysing pessimism locks them into passivity. They complain, yet usually do little to change the state of affairs.

It wasn’t always like this in South Africa. Yes, there was fear and uncertainty in the 1990s but these were counteracted by the promise of freedom and the hope it inspired. But since 1994, freedom — and the prosperity many people thought it would unleash — eludes the desperate grasps of millions.

It would be a lie to claim no positive progress has been achieved. However, these minor gains aren’t good enough. It isn’t remarkable to be “better” than an authoritarian, white supremacist government. Even when recognising that any post-1994 government would struggle to rebuild from the ruins of apartheid, the disenchantment many people feel is more than reasonable.

The mounting sense of disillusionment is compounded by the media. There are evenings when I avoid watching the news. I know what usually awaits me: stories of communities decaying, neglected by their so-called leaders. Tale after tale of brutal violence against the most vulnerable people in society. Another corruption scandal exposed with no jail time served by the culprits. The cool demeanour of news anchors delivering sad reports on our economy’s slow growth, followed by an onslaught of impersonal statistics about unemployment or inequality.

To avoid the temptation of falling into despair, indifference or unproductive rage, how does one cope with living in South Africa?

#ImStaying is a Facebook group and social-media movement that is becoming a rallying force that tempers the negative moods afflicting us. For those people who join the group, it’s a platform to quell our collective anger, to soothe our anxiety and briefly calm frustration through expressing one’s love for our country.

The wealthy — and often white — South Africans who eventually find the country unbearable are notorious for their proclivity to emigrate. The Facebook group is evolving fast, but it is at least partly a response to this historic trend. The platform promotes a kind of citizenship-centred patriotism that compels people to rethink emigration and endure South Africa’s numerous travails with kindness and positivity.

#ImStaying’s growth is astounding: it has gathered more than half a million members in less than three weeks. It’s a testimony to how starved citizens are of alternative narratives. Yet, as I explored the posts and read through the comments I grew uncomfortable with (but curious) about the type of optimism and positivity #ImStaying is promoting — I’ve seen it before.

There is a tendency — not unique to South Africans, but prevalent among us — to create and cling closely, and often uncritically, to “feel good” narratives. Remember Ramaphoria? Remember the project of reconciliation, complemented by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s description of the new South Africa as a “rainbow nation”? Now, there’s #ImStaying. One could argue that the movement builds on the idealistic narratives that came before it.

What do these narratives have in common? In an attempt to foster hope and unite citizens, they champion an unbridled optimism that often paints over the grim aspects of our political and economic realities. It’s not that members of the #ImStaying movement are unaware of the country’s problems, but that their response — although it does have its benefits — is limited in what it can achieve.

The impulses that drive the idealism of narratives such as #ImStaying are understandable. South Africa’s problems are complex, deeply rooted in histories we’ve barely unravelled, and are further muddled by the current deformities in government, civil society and the economy.

To confront these dilemmas can be daunting. Worse, the seemingly insurmountable barriers of class, race and gender isolate us, sapping the potential for collective action.

Instead, we strain our imaginations, telling stories that make our minds and hearts burst with blind optimism — and, sometimes, delusional positivity. But what is wrong with people wanting hope? Nothing. However, hope can be irrational when detached from the material conditions of the world.

Popular posts on the group are usually about acts of charity and kindness from strangers to those in need, usually between members of different races. Alongside this, one sees a lot posts about cross-cultural and interracial bonds or relationships. The caption will usually read something like “My white friend”, “Me and my loyal and loved domestic worker”, “My black friend at my wedding” and so on, followed by stories that are meant to display that racism, together with the division it implants, isn’t as pervasive as politicians and the media would have the public believe.

A few of these posts do make me smile. But a closer look reveals how the “feel good” themes of #ImStaying limit us from asking hard questions. For example, should a human’s ability to satisfy their basic needs depend on random acts of charity? As necessary as charity is to sustain the lives of those suffering at the bottom of the social order, should we not work towards erasing the conditions that make people poor in the first place?

Discussions about how to improve socioeconomic circumstances do occur in the #ImStaying group. Unfortunately, the plans of action are often centred on individual acts of charity and kindness. Similar to the nation’s brief romance with President Cyril Ramaphosa, it’s evident that certain segments of our political culture are obsessed with the notion that individuals — through tremendous willpower or moral virtue — can somehow drastically change or challenge systemic issues such as corruption, inequality, unemployment, crime and poverty.

But sensitivity to history and moments of radical change in recent years demonstrate that collective action has been much more of a useful tool than the actions of individuals, no matter how exceptional they may be.

The trappings of idealism are clear in the #ImStaying movement’s constant celebration of interracial marriages, friendships or families. Meaningful and intimate bonds that are built across lines of race or ethnicity should be normal. Sadly, they aren’t in South Africa. Because we are gradually recovering from a five-decade-long project of segregation, the adoration or resentment interracial bonds attract is understandable, although obviously not justified.

Instead of celebrating what should be normal in a cohesive society, should we not smash the economic and cultural obstacles that obstruct human connection?

The #ImStaying movement calls for the unity of citizens — regardless of gender, race or class — and the celebration of difference. Again, the impulse and principles are good, in fact, necessary for the country to recover from its various crises.

The deficiency of these narratives is in their failure to confront the severity of our problems. Authentic unity can’t exist in a country so harshly stratified by class. Difference cannot be celebrated when tens of thousands of men abuse, rape and kill women for the mere fact that they are women.

The realisation of reconciliation, the rainbow nation or the ideals of #ImStaying would require drastic and, for some people, uncomfortable changes to the very structure of South African society.

I return to my initial question: how does one cope with living in South Africa? If unrestrained idealism fogs our perception of reality, making us produce solutions to society’s ills that barely begin to excavate the nature of our predicaments, then what are the alternatives? One was offered by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who argued that we should adopt a “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”.

An unfiltered look on the broken worlds we inhabit is needed to fix them. The fact that things are bad — and probably getting worse — cannot be avoided. It may make you angry, dejected or exasperated. How could anyone bear witness to the unjust and unnecessary suffering all around us and not be indignant? Rather than allow our spirits to wallow and minds soak in these negative feelings, they should be harnessed towards propelling us into action.

Andile Zulu is a writer and cultural critic and has a blog called Born Free Blues